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Supported by Trinity House

Whistle while you work

Pipe out instructions with a boatswain’s whistle as we learn how sailors at sea share nautical messages.
Plan a session with this activity

You will need

  • Boatswain's whistle
  • Warm soapy water to clean after use
  • Pipe cleaner

Before you begin

  • A boatswain’s (pronounced ‘bosun’s’) call is a high, powerful whistle designed to be heard over the sounds of the sea.
  • Each sound from the whistle is known as a ‘pipe’, and these can be learned simply by listening to them, like the tune to a song.
  • You may need more than one whistle, depending on how many different participants would like to play the tune properly.
  • If sharing a whistle, it should be cleaned between uses with warm water, soap and a pipe cleaner.
  • It’s best to practise outside, as lots of use indoors could result in hearing damage.

Run the activity

  1. Explain that everyone will be learning how to use the boatswain’s call. Show them the whistles and explain that the call is a high-pitched noise used to attract the attention of sailors at sea. Explain that each different tune on the whistle is called a ‘pipe’.
  1. Have someone demonstrate some of the commonly used pipes. If no one can play any of them, use this handy guide and audio player made by 4th Gillingham Sea Scouts.
  2. When everyone’s got a good idea of what the pipes sound like, use the information below to introduce some of these calls and their uses.
  3. Explain that everyone will now be playing ‘Simon says’ using the boatswain’s call. The group will need to get on with another task, such as a game, activity or even a job like tidying up. A person with the boatswain’s whistle should periodically sound one of the following pipes, and everyone should perform the relevant command:
    • Still – Everyone should stop where they are and look to the piper.
    • Carry on – everyone should go back to what they were doing before (moving around the space)
    • Piping the side – everyone should stand at alert and salute.
    • The hail (call boatswain’s mates) – leaders or another group of pre-agreed people make their way to the piper, whilst everyone else carries on moving about.
    • The haul or hoist – everyone should stand where they are and mime pulling a rope in time.
  1. Continue to practise the uses of each pipe by taking the boatswain’s call in your right hand between your thumb and index finger, as shown below. The buoy (the round bowl part on the end) should sit in the hollow of your hand and the keel (thin plate along the bottom of the call) should sit in the fleshy part where your thumb joins your hand.
  2. This next part is much easier with someone who can already play the pipes you’re learning, as they can point out when someone gets it right or wrong. If that’s not an option for your group, it may be better to learn the nautical terms that the parts of the boatswain’s call refer to. To better understand, make sure everyone understands where each part is first.
An illustration of how to position your fingers on a boatswain’s whistle to play either low notes or high notes.
  1. Rest your thumb comfortably along the side of the keel by the shackle (the small ring that the call hangs from). Your index finger should be bent over the top of the gun. The notes of the boatswain’s call are then made by repositioning the other three fingers between the ‘raised’ and ‘closed’ position by covering or revealing the buoy.
  2. Raising the last three fingers up, away from the buoy as in the first image, frees the airflow through the whistle and produces the ‘low’ note. For low notes, you should blow steadily, but not too hard. Closing the hand to cover the opening of the buoy as in the second image, constricts the air flow, which creates a higher note. You’ll also need to blow a little harder for the high notes.
  1. Other than raising or lowering the hand, there are some other techniques you’ll need to know:
    • The sharp finish. This is done by placing your tongue over the end of the mouthpiece. It should be used only where a sharp finish is required and not between breaths.
    • The trill. This is done by putting your tongue to the front of your mouth with the end curled up behind your teeth, and then ‘rolling’ your R’s. It might be easiest to try it without the whistle at first.
    • The warble. This is similar to the trill, but not as fast. It’s made by wiggling your tongue up and down or side to side in your mouth whilst blowing.
  1. Practise the techniques before trying the different pipes out.

Reflection

The first recorded use of the boatswain’s call at sea comes from around the year 1248. For hundreds of years after, closed position (to play high notes) and raised position (to play low notes) was used by sailors everywhere to give orders over the sounds of the sea, where a shout might be lost. This unique method of communication doesn’t rely on those using it to share the same language, only an understanding of the different tunes. What other methods of communication can you think of that don’t use words or sound? Morse code can be transmitted with sound or with pulses of different lengths. Other systems like semaphore use flags to transmit messages. What other systems can you think of? Could you invent a new one?

Safety

Near water

Manage groups carefully when near water. The guidance on activities near water will help you to keep your group safe.

All activities must be safely managed. Do a risk assessment and take appropriate steps to reduce risk. Always get approval for the activity and have suitable supervision and an InTouch process.